Us and Them: Listening to the more-than-human majority
This paper was originally presented at the Devon and Cornwall Pagan Federation Conference in March 2007.
Some of what I’m going to talk to you about is draws on my PhD research. That’s doesn’t mean I’m going to go all technical and intellectual on you – in fact just the opposite! I’m researching the wisdom of the body – the vast knowledge and deep understanding we carry in our bodies all the time. Basically, we have very different ways we can know something: I know in a conscious way that Paris is the capital of France. But I also have another, deeper emotional sensual knowing of Paris – the smells of Paris, the taste of Paris, that odd little back street that I couldn’t tell you how to find but that I could walk to with ease. One kind of knowing – the conscious sort – is right here in my head. The other – that fuzzy, wordless, poetic knowing – is here in my gut.
When I tell people about this I get several different responses; First off there’s the ‘if I can’t see it, it ain’t there’ kind of person who looks at me as if I’m having a laugh. ‘You WHAT? How can my body know anything?’ But anyone who has trained in dance, body work or any kind of alternative healing knows just what I mean but does wonder how academics can have only just found out about something so obvious. Thankfully most people are like I was when I started this journey – They have an inkling of this mysterious body knowing, and want to find out more. Whichever attitude most describes you, I hope you’ll be a little wiser – in your body and in your head – at the end of this session.
Eco-Magic is ‘body-magic’
Over the years I’ve talked a lot about Eco-magic – which, in very simple terms means magic with some environmental intent. It’s become increasingly clear to me that Eco-Magic is a way of working with the body. Perhaps the fundamental aspect of eco-magic is to connect or to re-connect us with the ‘natural world’.
That connection might mean contacting the genius loci of a site so that we can work with it on protection magic. Or it might mean working in a Council of All Beings ritual to connect with another species or an ecosystem.
On a much simpler level, it could be something as basic as becoming more aware of your local ecology: Where does my water come from? Where does it go after I’ve used it? What species live in the area? What are the patterns of life and death around me?
As Pagans we do this to some extent anyway when we celebrate the changing seasons or the cycles of the Moon: By marking these cycles we become more aware of and more in tune with them.
What remains central to all these aspects is the body. Simply knowing in a formal intellectual way – in your head - that it’s Spring Equinox or the traditional date of Samhain won’t do anything to re-connect us to natural rhythms. We mark these moments of transition with ritual, which means engaging with them emotionally as well as intellectually. And that means the way the body knows is intimately involved.
If anything this is even more true in the case of a Council of All Beings ritual or an eco-magic working. We must be connected at the level of what I call the ‘deep body’ for it to really work. Arguably all magic is body magic, but if a key function of eco-magic is to re-connect us with nature, then we will want to be especially aware of how the body can work this miracle.
Let’s explore how this might work. If you take two tuning forks of the same pitch, and strike just one of them, the other fork will begin to vibrate in harmony. The two tuning forks are separate but connected. Something similar is happening to us all the time – the deep awareness in our bodies is resonating with the world around us and if we sink our awareness into that sound we can come into communion with the world.
So we are naturally connected to the wider ecosystem that surrounds us. Of course it’s probably not practical – or even desirable – to consciously tune in to that all the time. But I believe that regularly becoming aware of that connection is vital to our well being and that of the environment we are part of.
This connection is what happens when ritual works and in a slightly different way when we open to our bodies more generally – in sex, sport, meditation, etc. It’s also fundamental to any communication with other than human beings. When we start out in magic one of the key challenges is learning to listen. Many Pagans today have adopted the practice of ‘checking the site’ to see if the beings who exist there are agreeable to the working taking place. Not to do so is a little like turning up unannounced in someone's front room and declaring you’re going to have a party there! These are not empty spaces, and asking permission to work outdoors should be basic ritual practice. So we ask. We ask if it’s appropriate to weave our magic in this place. And then we listen. We listen carefully, and honesty. This is quite a bit harder than it sounds. When I started out, the genius loci was always most accommodating. Whatever branch I wanted to cut, or wherever I choose to work my magic, the answer was always a resounding ‘Yes – Go ahead’! Maybe it was just ‘beginners luck’…Or maybe I just heard what I wanted to hear…
At the heart of this approach is building relationship with the world around us and it can be summed up very simply: Just try to develop an attitude of connection and gratitude with the wonder that surrounds you. Take a moment to acknowledge something specific – a tree, plant or even a cloud. Just say ‘Hello!’ Try to really connect. And then offer thanks. Thanks for the tree for being there, giving you oxygen, shelter and joy. Thanks to the plant for its beauty. Thanks to the cloud for getting you to look above the mundane for a moment!
Getting out of your mind…
At this point in the talk you might be thinking “This bloke’s
out of his mind!”
Most of us use techniques to shift our consciousness. We trance journey, use shamanic plants, ritual or divination. These methods allow us to meld with and lose ourselves in Nature to reach a deeper understanding from within. I want to talk a little about some of these techniques and consider how we might use them in the adventure of connection.
When we open ourselves to profound communion with the other-than-human world, we may need to let go of our familiar ways of being and our usual safety mechanisms. I’m going to be talking about some quite strange and potentially disturbing experiences, and we must have good grounding for this work. That’s partly why I think some form of body work is an excellent foundation. I do yoga regularly, but perhaps for you it might be Tai Chi, dance, a sport, Chi Kung, or what ever else.
Bearing that in mind, I’d now like to explore how we might work with entheogens. Entheogens are shamanic plants like magic mushrooms, ayahuasca and salvia divinorum. I don’t call these helpers ‘hallucinogens’ because that makes it sound like the visions they bring are hallucinations. And I certainly don’t call them ‘drugs’ simply out of respect. The name entheogen comes from the ancient Greek Entheos literally means "the divine within” or more loosely translated simply "inspired". The Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists. The Greek Genesthai means "to cause to be". So an entheogen is "that which causes divine inspiration".
I appreciate that many Pagans are against working with plants in this way, as they feel it’s too uncontrollable and unpredictable. Starhawk writes in the Spiral Dance that ‘mind-altering drugs’ are not used in magic – well, “at least not by the wise”. We all walk our own path and on this point opinions widely differ. I can only tell you of my own experiences which I feel have been valuable.
Magic mushrooms are sadly, no longer suitable as they’re now illegal, and I’m sure the Pagan Federation want to have another conference here next year, so I will pass over that subject. But there are other plant helpers we can work with without getting arrested. Salvia Divinorum is a very powerful – and legal – entheogen that I have worked with several times. Saliva comes from the Mazatec people of Mexico, where the shamans have long revered the plant and there are suggestions that it may have been used by the ancient Aztecs. My own experiences have been fascinating and sometimes dramatic.
When I work with Salvia Divinorum I smoke the dried leaf of the plant. The journey is usually quite short – maybe 10 minutes – and I’m always left with a lovely after glow for about a half an hour. The experience is different for everyone, but my journeys have a certain consistency. I’ve visited the same yellow and terracotta space and met the same calm, benevolent beings each time. Things I would expect to fear are not fearful - it’s as if fear doesn’t exist there. I’ve been taught strange words by the Salvia beings when they want to explain concepts to me that aren’t familiar in this reality.
It’s quite hard to explain this kind of work, so I’m going to share a few extracts from a typical Salvia journey I’ve made:
“As I felt the now familiar tingling, I sat back in the chair. Tingling rings of red and green began to climb up my legs and body like tendrils. The rings then changed and looked like a huge claw, and though I realised that this could be frightening, it wasn’t at all. I felt a rush of something between heat and energy move up my body.
The red and green tendrils brought me into a yellow and terracotta space of unknown dimensions and I felt energy rush up from below towards my head.
Some of the time I was aware of who I was and what was happening, but most of the time ‘I’ was not aware of consensus reality at all, and was entirely involved in the experience itself. I can best describe that experience, somewhat inadequately, as one of travelling somewhere.
This ‘somewhere’ was the yellow land I have visited on previous journeys and on this occasion I met several beings there. If I try to describe them in terms of our reality, they were leaf-green colour, shaped like a baked bean and about the same size as I was. As with previous journeys, the beings had a very gentle, chilled benevolence. Afterwards I said that they had the same aura as the smiling Buddha. They have a childlike openness and joy coupled with immense wisdom, which gave them an infectious calmness.
The beings spoke to me, and taught me another odd word: mucscrollimu (muck-scrol-e-mew). I have no firm idea what this means, but it make me want to laugh every time I say it. Part of the reason is that the Salvia beings find our reality hilariously funny. I think ‘mucscrollimu’ is the name they give to both our reality and the phenomenon of humans taking an illusion so seriously.
They told me that their reality is here all the time, all around us, and that the Salvia Divinorum plant appeared where the two worlds intersect. The plant is how their reality manifests when it enters into ours. I asked if this was true of other power plants, and they said it was.
The beings smiled with deep calm and said that they would fade soon, so I should just relax. A moment later they did begin to fade, and I returned to the reality of the room”.
You can make of that what you will, but I believe the Salvia plant is a tool that allows me to open my awareness to an other-than-human world that that can teach me new perspectives on my own understanding of reality.
Ritual – The Council of All Beings
Most of us are familiar with ritual as a means of opening our awareness. One which I have found particularly powerful is called the 'Council of All Beings' which invites us to shift from human identity to speak the words of another creature. The Council of All Beings originated as a Deep Ecology workshop to help people to relate to the plight of the natural world. After some quite extensive preparation – which can last a couple of days – comes the Council itself, where everyone sits in a circle and speaks on behalf of a creature or eco-system that they feel needs a voice. The format is quite flexible so when the Dragon Network decided to facilitate a Council a few years ago we cranked up the shamanic aspect and came up with something quite remarkable.
The original Council doesn’t involve channeling or shape shifting, but the potential was clear, so we integrated a sweat lodge and shamanic journeying into the workshop. Our intent was more than speaking on behalf of another – this was to be a meeting of animal and nature spirits speaking through us. To honour this development of the original concept we recorded the Councils' words and have offered them to the wider community for comment and debate.
We made several shamanic drumming journeys to connect with whatever being wanted to speak through us. My first journey left me completely confused as I seemed to have lots of different beings at once coming thorough. And not just animal – there were crystals and micro-organisms as well as creatures like worms and badgers. Who – or what – wanted to speak? My second journey made it clear – It was the soil eco-system that wanted a voice. It took a third journey to really make a connection with this being – or beings! – because communication was awkward to say the least, as a human and a local soil eco-system have so little in common. The reason it worked was that both of us were committed to the process and respectful of each others needs. That reminds me of one disturbing moment during the council when I realised that I was barely breathing. A soil eco-system doesn’t breath like we do and I needed to edge my awareness forward a little to explain that this was kind of important for me!
What we’d hoped for from the Council was an opportunity to dialogue and explore with the natural world. Sadly the common tone from each of the beings who came to the Council was sadness and anger at human ignorance and stupidity. Frankly, that’s hardly surprising, but we hope that in future Councils we can move through pain to creative dialogue.
I’m currently planning another Council of All Beings Workshop for the early autumn in Devon, so if you’re interested give me your contact details later.
Our Council of All Beings effectively involved us in possession, which leads me on to my next topic. Possession is quite a loaded word but I’m deliberately using it here because I feel we should be reclaiming it from the exorcists. Drawing Down The Moon, which is a central rite of Wicca, is a form of possession though Wiccans more often talk about ‘shadowing’. It’s really all a matter of degree – how much are you releasing control to the other and how much do you remain yourself? My experience in the Council of All Beings was as close to full possession as I have ever had and there were times when ‘I’ – Adrian Harris – was very much a small passive observer in the background. After the Council was over I found earth everywhere! In my hair, down my shirt and trousers and all over my face. The Soil being had been very uncomfortable in a fleshy body and had tried to get more at home. I’m just grateful that it didn’t know how to use a spade…
This kind of very intimate connection with the other than human world is powerful and can leave you with profound insights. But do think through what the being that will possess you will need. On a couple of occasions I have invited a Fire Elemental to possess me – an experience I really can’t recommend highly enough! The first time was late Summer at a camp with a big fire pit and it was wonderful! The second time was on a damp night where the only fire burnt in tiny night light candles and the Elemental was really uncomfortable - especially when it started to drizzle and the candles began to go out one by one…Thankfully I was with people who understood what was happening and they made sure a small fire was lit nearby. So please think through in advance what your guest will need. Once you are possessed you may not be able to communicate needs or do anything to fulfil them.
It also important to set boundaries – Get a clear agreement that when the ritual is over, or whenever you feel the need, then your ‘guest’ will leave. Although I’d highly recommend that you have a partner in this work who can make sure you come to no harm, I don’t want to make it sound more scary than it is. Benign possession is common across the world – it’s only in the Western that we seem to have lost the knack.
Training your perception
We’ve also allowed our senses to become dulled. That’s probably at least partly due to the sheer volume and intensity of our sensory input. There’s so much artificial noise and visual pollution that our senses become numb.
Perhaps we should take note of the example of the American naturalist Henry Thoreau (1817 –1862) who spent valuable time living alone in a small hut in the woods. Here he gradually trained his perception until he was quite capable of seeing a water bug dimple the surface of a pool a quarter of a mile away. His sense of small was no less acute and he notes that he smells the first appearance of muskrats in the spring.
Taste too is enhanced. For Thoreau eating becomes “a method of communion and ecstatic exercise.”
His sense of touch is remarkable. One moonless night he is out in the woods after dark so can’t see the way back to his hut. He’s not the slightest worried and delights finding his way home by sensing the track beneath his feet and stroking the bark of the familiar trees.
Thoreau himself sums it up well:
Here is a lesson for us: By taking time and caring enough to make the effort, we can sharpen our senses. Perhaps we can once more create a culture of sensuality that knows the sacred through the physical: That tastes, smells, touches & hears bliss, feeling our wholeness in sensual delight.
Thoreau had the good fortune to live in the woods, which is something very few of us can do. The UK doesn’t have much wilderness left, but there is plenty of nature to explore and enjoy – especially round here! In fact even a little exposure to nature will open up our senses and help us to reconnect.
In the late autumn of 2005 I gave in notice on the London flat I was living in, put all my worldly goods into storage and went to live on a road protest site for several months. While I was there I built a place to live and a compost toilet, but more importantly, I learnt something about connection with nature.
Kate, who lived at the Newbury road protest, explains it very well:
After a month or so on the site I noticed how much more in tune with my environment I’d become. I’ve been a practicing Pagan for years, but most days couldn’t make more than an educated guess at which phase the moon was. When I lived on site I knew the Moon phase better than I knew what day of the week it was!
In general, I felt more emotionally open and less restricted. We often talk about urban congestion. But it’s not just roads that are congested – it’s our psyches.
I’m currently developing a new series of nature workshops with some of the people I met on that road protest. We want to help people get a taste of the kind of reconnection that living in the woods can give you. If you’re interested, give me your contact details later.
Good sex is the closest most people get to complete connection with another person and for some sexuality can play a part in reconnecting with nature. As Starhawk says,
"We can love nature, not just aesthetically, but carnally, with
our meat, our bones..."
Sexual encounters with the eroticism of the natural world are far more common than most people realize. Sylvie Shaw, a researcher in Tasmania, calls these experiences eco-erotic. She’s collected stories where people speak about the sensual experience of being enveloped in nature, lured by the intoxicating smell of the earth, the smoothness of boulders, and the erotic touch of bark.
A common theme is the feeling of sacredness, a sense of pleasure and freedom when physical boundaries drop away.
Janni, a Psychologist said:
Janni likes tongue-kissing rocks and believes they kiss back. This may sound weird at first, but I believe it's a vital element in shifting our culture. It's a sensuous way of knowing that fully engages with the earth.
Sylvie writes that these stories tell of "wild love, lust, fertility and commitment. Becoming eco-erotic is like falling in love with the land, relishing in its raw earthiness and our own."
I’ve been talking a lot and much as I love the sounds of my own voice, I’d like to get you more involved. So I want to do a short practical exercise with you. Unfortunately most of what I’ve talked about is out: We’re not in the wilderness, and mass possession, a sex orgy or getting you all off you heads on something organic will probably bring the conference to a dramatic close, so I’m offering a taste of something very gentle but nevertheless potentially very powerful. I want us to spend a little time listening to the fuzzy, wordless, poetic knowing I mentioned at the start – our body knowing.
I going to introduce you to something called ‘Focusing’ which is simply learning to listen to what your body knows. We do this by becoming aware of what’s called the ‘felt sense’, which is a feeling in the body that has a meaning for us. A felt sense is more than just an emotion – though it certainly has an emotional aspect. It’s those fuzzy feelings that we don’t usually pay much attention to. But when you do, the felt sense can begin to get a shape, a colour, a smell or even a taste.
Let me give you some examples: Imagine you're sitting here and you suddenly spot someone across the room that you have a bit of a history with. How does that feel? Mmmm. Maybe some butterflies. Maybe some vague memories. A mixture of things - That’s a ‘felt sense’. Or let's say you're taking a walk on a beautiful fresh morning, just after a rain storm, and you come over a hill, and there, hanging in the air in front of you is a perfect rainbow. As you stand there and gaze at it you feel your chest welling up with an expansive, flowing, warm feeling. That’s a felt sense.
Why would we want to spend time with a felt sense? Because they are the way your body communicates and your body has immense wisdom. I believe that at a deep level our bodies are connected to everything around them. If that’s true – and has been going on throughout your whole life – imagine what a wealth of experience and knowledge your body has.
OK. So now let me take you on a journey into your body to explore whatever ‘felt sense’ most wants to be with you right now. Focusing has something in common with guided mediation or inner journeying. I think it’s subtly different from either, but that will give you an idea of what we’re about to do. The journey will take about 10 minutes.
Bringing Awareness into Your Body
Receiving and Experiencing What Has Changed
Bringing Awareness Out
I hope that little exercise gave you more experiential sense of what I’ve been talking about. Our bodies are truly sacred - They are made of the stuff of the Stars and we are part of the natural world, of Gaia. To really be in Nature - to be Nature - we must honour and value our sensory experience: the tastes and smells in the air, the feel of the wind as it caresses the skin, the feel of the ground under our feet as we walk upon it. Instead of a strict boundary between myself & the rest of the world, we can embrace a shifting awareness across a kaleidoscope of being. And this new awareness encourages a right relationship with nature. Many of us say that the Earth is Sacred, but we may mean that our relationship with the Earth - and our physicality - is Sacred.
Earth Healing rituals are quite common today, but it’s not the Earth that’s sick. The sickness is human - it’s our relationship to the Earth we must heal, and fast. The practices I’ve spoken about offer such healing, so that we can come to know deep in our bodies, that we are part of all that surrounds us, part of the sacredness of the Earth. You are the Earth: Your blood is the sea, your bones the rocks and your flesh the soil. We heal the Earth as we heal ourselves.